Frank Hugh O'Donnell
O'Donnell was born in an army barracks in Devon, England, where his father, Sergeant Bernard MacDonald, was stationed. His mother, Mary Kain, was a native of Ballybane, close to Galway city in Ireland. He was educated at the Erasmus Smith School in Galway, St. Ignatius College (the "Jes"), and later enrolled in Queen's College Galway, where he studied English literature, history and political economy. While a student at the college, he acquired a considerable reputation as an orator, and was a frequent contributor to meetings of the college's Literary and Debating Society, of which he became vice-auditor for the 1864-1865 session.
Even in his student days, O'Donnell seems to have been quick to voice his opinions, and revelled in controversy. In November 1866, addressing the Literary and Debating Society on the question "Was the character of Warren Hastings as Governor-General of India praiseworthy?", O'Donnell caused uproar by denouncing "the principle and the system which have lain at the root of the international and intercolonial policy of England, from the days when Elizabeth, the Infamous, chartered for profit two of the first ships which opened the African slave trade...". His remarks caused the chairman of the meeting, Professor Thomas Moffett, to prevent O'Donnell from continuing his speech, stating that "such an epithet ought not to be applied to any predecessor of our present gracious Queen." O'Donnell regarded such action as an unwarranted restriction on his freedom of speech, and in a letter published in the local press gave an early example of his high-flown literary style:
"I hold that Debating Societies are the nurseries of independent thought, and the training schools of sober criticism. I believe in the power and impartiality of an enlightened studenthood ... I have followed the mind of Austin. I have sat at the feet of Cairnes. I have drunk of the philosophy of Mill. I claim for Judicial Science, for Economic Science, for the Philosophy of History, a place in the discussions of our society, I pity and I scorn the formidable confederacy of fools who dare not call a spade a spade."
This incident, combined with the reluctance of the society to prevent O'Donnell from addressing its meetings, eventually led to the suspension of the society from the Queen's College and its temporary migration to rooms in the city of Galway.
O'Donnell graduated from the Queen's College with an M.A. degree in 1868, winning several gold medals for his academic performance. By this stage, he had begun to style himself 'Frank Hugh O'Donnell', believing himself to be a descendant of Hugh O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell.
Leaving Galway, O'Donnell moved to London, where he embarked on a career in journalism, following his college contemporary T.P. O'Connor. O'Connor's knowledge of modern European languages had helped him to establish himself as a correspondent on European affairs, and he assisted O'Donnell in developing a similar reputation; he spent a brief period on the staff of the London Morning Post.
In the 1874 general election, he was elected Member of Parliament for Galway, but was unseated by the courts in what appears to have been a politically inspired judgment which used certain unsavoury campaigning tactics in which O'Donnell had indulged as its basis. He was succeeded in the seat by his election agent, Dr Michael Francis Ward, who was himself succeeded in 1880 by T.P. O'Connor - in an unusual succession, all three had been either auditor or vice-auditor of the Queen's College Literary and Debating Society in the same era.
In 1877, O'Donnell secured a more permanent election to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom as MP for Dungarvan, County Waterford; he held the seat until 1885, when the constituency was abolished. He struck a colourful and controversial figure in parliament and became renowned for his declamatory speech-making. He was a prominent obstructionist and claimed credit for inventing the tactic of obstructionism which was to yield such results for the Home Rule League under Charles Stewart Parnell. Indeed, O'Donnell saw himself as a natural leader and became disillusioned when Parnell was selected in May 1880 to succeed William Shaw as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
He abandoned the Irish Parliamentary Party and conventional politics, but not its general aims of promoting home rule and tenant farmers' rights. His last and perhaps most important contribution to the fortunes of the party was the libel case he launched against the Times in 1888 over the series "Parnellism and Crime"; though the case was lost, it resulted in the establishment of the Parnell Commission which exonerated Parnell from condoning the Phoenix Park Murders, and exposed the Piggott Forgeries.
In his later years O'Donnell considered that both the British administration and the Roman Catholic church in Ireland was working against the best interests of the Irish people. His Paraguay on Shannon (1908) is an amusing but serious critique of the power of the Catholic Church in local politics and education, particularly in its involvement with the Congested Districts Board that was sponsored unquestioningly by the British government. He felt that much of Irish poverty and a lack of self-help and self-respect was due to unsanitary church-run National Schools, bad education and over-spending on new churches. Yet, unlike most anti-clerical critics, he was not a socialist.
- A History of the Irish Parliamentary Party (2 vols), London, Longmans Green & Co., 1910
- Paraguay on Shannon Hodges & Figgis, Dublin, 1908.
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- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Frank Hugh O'Donnell
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Sir Rowland Blennerhassett
|Member of Parliament for Galway Borough
With: George Morris
Michael Francis Ward
|Member of Parliament for Dungarvan